NEW YORK – A Wall Street icon vanished last week after Morgan Stanley dropped Smith Barney from its brokerage title. But some in the industry say the firm's well-known advertising slogan - "They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it" - and the culture it conveyed had already become a thing of the past.
Frequent consolidations and name changes in the industry have jaded many brokers and advisers. And at brokerages that were absorbed into big banks, many brokers are irked by negative headlines about the financial missteps of their parent company. Wealth clients are increasingly relying on individual financial advisers more than the firm they work for.
The result has been a rise in brokers' individual brands, and firms must fight harder and pay more to keep advisers.
These days, where the broker goes, the client usually follows. Recruiters say brokers with two or more decades of experience who decamp for a rival often bring up to 85 percent of client assets they manage with them -- up to 95 percent when they go independent.
Changing client preferences have also eroded the loyalty brokers feel toward their firms. Many brokers have watched the sign on the door change twice or more during their careers, and no longer identify as closely with their firm as they did in the days of the 1970s commercial, "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen."
Unless a firm offers a significant business advantage, a veteran broker will not hesitate to depart for a rival offering a big signing bonus, or to set up an independent office if it seems to be a more lucrative option.
"Years ago, it meant the world to be with Merrill Lynch or Paine Webber," said New Jersey-based independent adviser Jack Weiner, referring to the two standalone brokerages that have since been rolled into bigger banks.
Back then, he said, people knew less about the industry, so they relied more on the strength and reputation of a name to choose an adviser. But now, Weiner said people "accept the fact that (the nameplate) doesn't really matter anymore."
Each time a firm's name changes, it reminds clients that their adviser is the same despite the new brokerage name on his or her business card.
"In a world that's constantly changing, the adviser is the constant," said Ed Friedman, a practice management consultant at New York-based Friedman Consulting Group and a former Morgan Stanley executive director.
SAME DESK, DIFFERENT FIRM
Former household names like A.G. Edwards, Paine Webber and Dean Witter Reynolds have been swallowed up by larger firms: Wells Fargo & Co, UBS AG, and Morgan Stanley, respectively.
A Midwest broker with Wells Fargo said he has had the same desk and the same assistant since he started in the business, but three different firm names have been on his business card. He started with A.G. Edwards & Sons, which merged with Wachovia Securities in 2007, which was pulled into Wells Fargo the following year.
"At this point I'm reluctant to even tie myself to the Wells name because I've been down this road before," said the broker, who asked not to be identified because he did not have permission from the firm to speak with the press.
Despite that reluctance, the broker said the mergers have led to "dramatically better" product offerings at Wells and better economies of scale.
Wells Fargo and other banks that avoided the worst fallout from the financial crisis maintain some of the old allure. For some advisers, the firm's name remains important even if they set up their own advising business.
New Jersey-based adviser Nick Boccella, for example, became an independent adviser in May and partnered with Wells Fargo's independent broker-dealer division because of its name recognition.
"In the environment we're in today," he said, "it's very important... because clients have to be comfortable that their money is safe."
In a bid to better tap into the new reality, some big firms are crafting marketing campaigns and slogans that focus more on the adviser, less on the firm.
Following its name change, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management launched a new campaign dubbed "What If?," which singles out a "someone" in its advertisement: "What if there was someone... who helped clients follow their own path," is one tagline. Morgan Stanley declined to comment for this story.
For Bank of America's Merrill Lynch, it's "The Power of the Right Advisor," a contrast with its 1970s slogan, "Merrill Lynch is bullish on America."
Justine Metz, head of global wealth and investment management marketing for Bank of America, said the campaign, which started last year, was chosen after clients said in survey that their adviser was one of the things they liked best about the company. The firm decided to leverage that, she said.
The prominence of the individual adviser is even playing out on business cards. Advisers on teams at Wells Fargo can design their own cards as long as the firm approves the final design and the Wells name appears on there somewhere, two advisers at the firm said. Some advisers prominently display their group name, while putting the words "of Wells Fargo Advisors" in a much smaller font. Wells declined to comment.
The challenge for the firms who opt for this approach is finding ways to distinguish themselves from rival firms.
"You have to be perceived as the only solution to your prospects' needs," said Rob Frankel, a Los Angeles-based marketing consultant and longtime branding professional.
Frankel said that includes taking an objective look at the key traits the firm brings to the table. When a firm can find one thing that is "clear, credible, authoritative and defensible," clients are more likely to feel loyal, he said. "The whole point about branding is cultivating trust."
(Reporting By Ashley Lau and Jennifer Hoyt Cummings; Editing by Jennifer Merritt and David Gregorio)